#6 - USC Trojans

Why sixth? Aren't these Trojans predicted to contend for the conference crown and the final four? Not if you are paying close attention and can manage to ignore the national media obsession/hype that has accompanied OJ Mayo. Why? Simply put, the Trojans have exactly one returning player that isn't merely a complementary contributor.

Taj Gibson is a future NBA first round pick at the 4/5 slot. He is a tenacious rebounder and shot blocker. He is quick and athletic, plays good position defense and has excellent instincts at both ends. He is good jump shooter out to 15-17 feet and can score well with his back to the basket, as well as put the ball on the floor in appropriate circumstances. However, he does need to fix a major hole in his game, that being turnovers. He turned the ball over 107 times last year, by far the most on the team, and only registered 55 assists. After that, their non-freshman front court players,

Rousean Cromwell and Abdoulaye N'diaye are both big and fairly athletic, but neither has much offensive game to speak of nor are they notably excellent defenders. Neither one is close to a starting level Pac-10 player.

After Gibson, wing Dwight Lewis and guard Daniel Hackett are the Trojans' top returners. Both players are solid, but neither is really a go to player. Hackett is a good ball handler and as the ability to man the point guard slot at times, but as a point he is not a playmaker. He takes care of the ball well and is a solid passer, but he doesn't have the quickness or ball skills to consistently beat high major defenders. He is tough and strong which allows him to post most point guards, but with freshmen OJ Mayo and Angelo Johnson in the fold, he will likely play more at the 2 and 3. This presents its own set of problems again beginning with the fact that Hackett is not a dynamic offensive threat.

Compounding the problem, is that Hackett is also a mediocre shooter (.313 from 3 and .395 from the field). On the plus side Hackett's strength, toughness and determination as a player make him a very pesky and solid defender. He is a contributor, but really can't be expected to be more than a strong complementary player. There is nothing wrong with that, but he cannot be counted upon to carry the team. It is also uncertain how long Hackett will be out of action at this point due to the errant OJ Mayo elbow that broke his jaw in three places. His jaw will be wired shut for a couple months and he will almost certainly lose a fair amount of weight due to the inability to eat solid foods. There's no telling what kind of shape Hackett will be in when he returns. At this point one would have to think that the earliest he could possibly hope to be back at 100 percent will be late February or so, if at all.

Dwight Lewis is somewhat similar to Hackett. He is a good defender (most of Floyd's players tend to be) and is a decent but not great shooter (.406 from the field, .328 from 3). Lewis is also a bit more athletic than Hackett. Again, he is really just a complementary player at this time, but does have the potential to be more as his game matures.

On the bright side, they have brought in a pretty talented recruiting class which should go at least part of the way to replacing their losses. So before examining the replacements class, here is a rundown of exactly what they will be trying to replace:
  • Two junior three-year starters and a senior four-year starter (Pruitt, Young and Stewart)
  • Their top-three scorers
  • Their top-three outside shooters
  • Their starting point guard and assist leader
  • Three of their top four perimeter defenders
  • Their MVP and the Pac-10's most dynamic scorer from last year in Nick Young

The Trojans' effort trying to replace that production will begin with OJ Mayo. Mayo will immediately be expected to be the go to scorer and lock down defender that the extremely athletic Nick Young was. Can he do that? Perhaps. At 6-foot-5, he is very big for a point guard and an outstanding ball handler. He can legitimately play the 1, 2 or 3 on both sides of the ball.

That said, Mayo isn't now and has never been "The Next LeBron," as some have dubbed him. Lebron is a once in a generation, and perhaps once in a lifetime talent. Lebron is a true freak – a 6-foot-8, 240 pound point guard in a power forward's body that can leap out of the building, break down almost anyone off the dribble, and finish at the rim as well as almost anyone in NBA history. Mayo is a phenomenal high school player, a great athlete, and a future lottery pick, but Lebron James he is not; not even close. What he can do is get his shot pretty much whenever he wants and shoot with outstanding range. He will probably be as dynamic a scorer as there is in college basketball, being able to score from all over the floor.

Even so, whether or not he can duplicate Young's uncanny ability to make difficult, contested and clutch shot after shot remains to be seen. There were numerous occasions where Young's unconscious shooting carried the Trojans. Mayo will have to be live up to every bit of the hype to give the Trojans what they got from Young while being saddled with replacing Young's defensive capabilities and keeping enough air in his lungs to last 40 minutes a night.

Floyd teaches strong defense, and Young was his strongest defender last season, so it would be pretty surprising for him to duplicate Young's defensive intensity. The key for Mayo will be ignoring his own hype, buying into the team concept and sacrificing his stats to some extent in order to play tenacious defense and get his teammates involved. If he can do that, there is decent chance the Trojans will finish better than 6th.

If he can't do that and uses this season as a way to showcase his skills for the NBA, he will end up a 20 PPG scorer on a .500 ball club.

Freshman point guard Angelo Johnson could get a shot at the point slot if Hackett doesn't start there, although Mayo will certainly play point guard a significant amount. Johnson is very quick and can make a variety of shots, but he is also a slight 5-foot-10. He is more of a scoring lead guard than a distributor. At times he becomes infatuated with his dribble and when he does, he can rack up turnovers in a hurry. He has range on his shot but is inconsistent from the outside. Contrast that with the Gabe Pruitt who is 6-foot-4, athletic, quick, a good defender, and very adept at controlling the offense from the point guard slot and it's not even close. It would be downright shocking if Johnson was able to come close to duplicating the production that the 32nd pick in the 2007 draft gave the Trojans, particularly Pruitt's phenomenal 113 to 48 (2.35:1) A/TO ratio, which would have led the conference if Pruitt had played in enough games to qualify. It is similarly unreasonable to expect freshman Marcus Simmons to replace Lodrick Stewart's production from the shooting guard slot and he certainly won't have the moxy or understanding of the game that a seasoned four-year Pac-10 starter would have.

Probably the biggest 'x' factor for this team will be the play of Davon Jefferson. Jefferson was originally part of the 2005 class as a senior at Lynwood High. The freshman, who comes to the Trojans after being originally committing to UNLV in the 2005 class, subsequently failed to qualify and reopened his recruitment. Despite his inability to qualify for the academically prestigious UNLV, he was able to secure a scholarship offer from USC in 2006, but after failing to qualify for USC's 2006 class Jefferson did a post graduate year at a North Carolina prep school and was able to sneak through the NCAA clearinghouse and into USC's 2007 class. Jefferson's two-year delay in joining the college basketball ranks has not been without effect. Jefferson has looked very raw during the Say No league and other summer events. However, Jefferson is very talented and athletic with excellent quickness and body control for a 6-foot-8 small/power forward. His upside is huge, but his skills have lagged far behind his potential at this point.

Tim Floyd is an excellent coach though and perhaps Jefferson will blossom under his tutelage. Another potential issue will be whether Floyd can improve Jefferson's approach to the game which at times has been marred by some attitude issues – not getting back on D, complaining and failing to get teammates involved. If Jefferson can overcome the negatives and live up to his considerable potential, he would give the Trojans some much needed help in the front court for Taj Gibson. That would go a long way to solidifying the Trojans chances.

Mamadou Diarra is the Trojans' other hope for front court production among the freshmen. Diarra is athletic and big (close to 7 feet) but extremely raw. He is the definition of a project. He may see significant playing time, although he could potentially provide rebounding and defense in backup minutes, he won't produce much on offense.

The Trojans have some elite talent, and a good coach who teaches defense and on court discipline well. The question is whether he can take an inexperienced group containing several potentially conflicting personalities and turn them into a team. So, while there is no doubting the potential of the Trojan roster, they have as many question marks as they have answers.

If they can overcome their lack of quality front court depth, if the freshmen can mature quickly and overcome their lack of experience, if they can find enough shots to make Gibson, Mayo and Jefferson happy, and iF they can gel and display the kind of synergy that made last years team so good, then they have the potential to be an excellent squad perhaps even top-three in the conference.

If, If, If... In the end, as good a coach as Tim Floyd his personality and coaching style may prove to be an explosive combination (not in a good way) for a lineup with more than a couple potential personality conflicts. Teams take on the personality of their coach and Floyd's sideline antics could prove to be kryptonite for his otherwise unquestioned ability to motivate and teach.

In the end too many question marks, too much inexperience, and too many major losses prevent this team from completely living up to the hype. An inconsistent 6th place finish with some high profile upsets sounds about right.

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